“Was that great or what?”
Oleg’s enthusiastic voice drowned out the spitting fat in the kebab shop, which was crowded with people after the concert at the Oslo Spektrum. Harry nodded to Oleg, who was standing in his hoodie, still sweaty, still moving to the beat as he prattled on about the members of Slipknot by name, names Harry didn’t even know since Slipknot CDs were sparing with personal data, and music magazines like MOJO and Uncut didn’t write about bands like that. Harry ordered hamburgers and looked at his watch. Rakel had said she would be standing outside at ten o’clock. Harry looked at Oleg again. He was talking nonstop.
When had it happened? When had the boy turned eleven and decided to like music about various stages of death, alienation, freezing and general doom? Perhaps it ought to have worried Harry, but it didn’t. It was a starting point, a curiosity that had to be satisfied, clothes the boy had to try on to see if they fit. Other things would come along. Better things. Worse things.
“You liked it, too, didn’t you, Harry?”
Harry nodded. He didn’t have the heart to tell him the concert had been a bit of an anticlimax for him. He couldn’t put his finger on what it was; perhaps it just wasn’t his night. As soon as they had joined the crowd in the Spektrum, he had felt the paranoia that used to regularly accompany drunkenness but that during the last year had come when he was sober. And instead of getting into the mood, he had had the feeling he was being observed, and stood scanning the audience, studying the wall of faces around them.
“Slipknot rules,” Oleg said. “And the masks were übercool. Especially the one with the long, thin nose. It looked like a . . . sort of . . . ”
Harry was listening with half an ear, hoping Rakel would come soon. The air inside the kebab shop suddenly felt dense and suffocating, like a thin film of grease lying on your skin and over your mouth. He tried not to think his next thought. But it was on its way, had already rounded the corner. The thought of a drink.
“It’s an Indian death mask,” a woman’s voice behind them said.
“And Slayer was better than Slipknot.”
Harry spun around in surprise.
“Lots of posing with Slipknot, isn’t there?” she continued. “Recycled ideas and empty gestures.”
She was wearing a shiny, figure-hugging, ankle-length black coat buttoned up to her neck. All you could see under the coat was a pair of black boots. Her face was pale and her eyes made up.
“I would never have believed it,” Harry said. “You liking that kind of music.”
Katrine Bratt managed a brief smile. “I suppose I would say the opposite.”
She gave him no further explanation and signaled to the man behind the counter that she wanted a Farris mineral water.
“Slayer sucks,” Oleg mumbled under his breath.
Katrine turned to him. “You must be Oleg.”
“Yes,” Oleg said sulkily, pulling up his army trousers and looking as if he both liked and disliked this attention from a mature woman.
“How d’ya know?”
Katrine smiled. “ ‘How d’ya know?’ Living on Holmenkollen
Ridge as you do, shouldn’t you say ‘How do you know?’? Is Harry teaching you bad habits?”
Blood suffused Oleg’s cheeks.
Katrine laughed quietly and patted Oleg’s shoulder. “Sorry, I’m just curious.”
The boy’s face went so red that the whites of his eyes were shining.
“I’m also curious,” Harry said, passing a burger to Oleg. “I assume you’ve found the pattern I asked for, Bratt. Since you’ve got time to come to a gig.”
Harry looked at her in a way that spelled out his warning: Don’t tease the boy.
“I’ve found something,” Katrine said, twisting the plastic top off the Farris bottle. “But you’re busy, so we can sort it out tomorrow.”
“I’m not so busy,” Harry said. He had already forgotten the film of grease, the feeling of suffocation.
“It’s confidential and there are a lot of people here,” Katrine said. “But I can whisper a couple of key words.”
She leaned closer, and over the fat he could smell the almost masculine fragrance of perfume and feel her warm breath on his ear.
“A silver Volkswagen Passat has just pulled up outside. There’s a woman sitting inside trying to catch your attention. I would guess it’s Oleg’s mother . . . ”
Harry straightened up with a jolt and looked out the large window toward the car. Rakel had wound down the window and was peering in at them.
“Don’t make a mess,” Rakel said as Oleg jumped into the backseat with the burger in his hand.
Harry stood beside the open window. She was wearing a plain, light blue sweater. He knew that sweater well. Knew how it smelled, how it felt against the palm of his hand and cheek.
“Good gig?” she asked.
“What sort of band was it, actually?” She looked at Oleg in the mirror. “Those people outside are a bit oddly dressed.”
“Quiet songs about love and so on,” Oleg said, sending a quick wink to Harry when her eyes were off the mirror.
“Thank you, Harry,” she said.
“My pleasure. Drive carefully.”
“Who was that woman inside?”
“A colleague. New on the job.”
“Oh? Looked as if you knew each other pretty well already.”
“You . . . ” She stopped in midsentence. Then she slowly shook her head and laughed. A deep but bright laugh that came from down in her throat. Confident and carefree at the same time. The laugh that had once made him fall in love.
“Sorry, Harry. Good night.”
The window glided upward; the silver car glided off.
Harry walked the gauntlet down Brugata, between bars with music blaring out of open doors. He considered a coffee at Teddy’s Softbar, but knew it would be a bad idea. So he made up his mind to walk on by.
“Coffee?” repeated the guy behind the counter in disbelief.
The jukebox at Teddy’s was playing Johnny Cash, and Harry passed a finger over his top lip.
“You got a better suggestion?” Harry heard the voice that came out of his mouth; it was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
“Well,” said the guy, running a hand through his oily, glistening hair, “the coffee’s not exactly fresh from the machine, so what about a freshly pulled beer?”
Johnny Cash was singing about God, baptism and new promises.
“Right,” Harry said.
The man behind the counter grinned.
At that moment Harry felt the mobile phone in his pocket vibrate. He grabbed it quickly and greedily, as though it were a call he had been expecting.
It was Skarre.
“We’ve just received a missing-persons call that fits. Married woman with children. She wasn’t at home when the husband and children returned a few hours ago. They live way out in the woods in Sollihøgda. None of the neighbors have seen her and she can’t have left by car because the husband had it. And there are no footprints on the path.”
“There’s still snow up there.”
The beer was banged down in front of Harry.
“Harry? Are you there?”
“Yes, I am. I’m thinking.”
“Is there a snowman there?”
“How should I know?”
“Well, let’s go and find out. Jump in the car and pick me up outside Gunerius shopping center, on Storgata.”
“Can’t we do this tomorrow, Harry? I’ve got some action lined up for tonight, and this woman is only missing, so there’s no immediate hurry.”
Harry watched the foam coiling its way down the outside of the beer glass like a snake.
“Actually . . . ,” Harry said, “ . . . there’s one hell of a hurry.”
Amazed, the bartender looked at the untouched beer, the fifty-krone note on the counter and the broad shoulders making off through the door as Johnny Cash faded out.
. . .
“Sylvia would never have simply left,” said Rolf Ottersen.
Rolf Ottersen was thin. Or, to be more precise, he was a bag of bones. His flannel shirt was buttoned all the way up, and from it protruded a gaunt neck and a head that reminded Harry of a wading bird. A pair of narrow hands with long, scrawny fingers that continually curled, twisted and twirled protruded from his shirtsleeves. The nails of his right hand had been filed long and sharp, like claws. His eyes, behind thick glasses in plain, round steel frames, the type that had been popular among seventies radicals, seemed unnaturally large. A poster on the mustard-yellow wall showed Indians carrying an anaconda. Harry recognized the cover of a Joni Mitchell LP from hippie Stone Age times. Next to it hung a reproduction of a well known self-portrait by Frida Kahlo. A woman who suffered, Harry thought. A picture chosen by a woman. The floor was untreated pine, and the room was lit by a combination of old-fashioned paraffin lamps and brown clay lamps, which looked as if they might have been homemade. Leaning against the wall in the corner was a guitar with nylon strings, which Harry took to be the explanation for Rolf Ottersen’s filed nails.
“What do you mean, she ‘would never have left’?” Harry asked.
In front of him on the living- room table Rolf Ottersen had placed a photograph of his wife with their twin daughters, Olga and Emma, ten years old. Sylvia Ottersen had big, sleepy eyes, like someone who had worn glasses all her life and then started wearing contact lenses or had laser eye surgery. The twins had their mother’s eyes.
“She would’ve said,” Rolf Ottersen explained. “Left a message.
Something must’ve happened.”
In spite of his despair his voice was muted and gentle. Rolf Ottersen pulled a handkerchief from his trouser pocket and put it to his face. His nose seemed abnormally big for his narrow, pale face. He blew his nose in one single trumpet blast.
Skarre poked his head inside the door. “The dog patrol’s here. They’ve got a cadaver dog with them.”
“Get going, then,” Harry said. “Have you spoken to all the neighbors?”
“Yep. Still nothing.”
Skarre closed the door, and Harry saw that Ottersen’s eyes had become even bigger behind the glasses.
“Cadaver dog?” Ottersen whispered.
“Just a generic term,” Harry said, making a mental note that he would have to give Skarre a couple of tips on how to express himself.
“So you use them to search for living people as well?” From his intonation, the husband appeared to be pleading.
“Yes, of course,” Harry lied, rather than tell him that cadaver dogs sniffed out places where dead bodies had been. They were not used for drugs, lost property or living people. They were used for deaths.
“So you last saw her today at four,” Harry said, looking down at his notes. “Before you and your daughters went to town. What did you do there?”
“I took care of the shop while the girls had their violin lessons.”
“We have a small shop in Majorstuen selling handmade African goods. Art, furniture, fabric, clothes, all sorts of things. They’re
imported directly from the artisans, and the artisans are paid properly. Sylvia is there most of the time, but on Thursdays we’re open late, so she comes back home with the car and I go in with the girls. I’m at the shop while they have violin lessons at the Barrat Due Institute of Music from five until seven. Then I pick them up, and we come home. We were home a little after seven- thirty.”
“Mm. Who else works in the shop?”
“That must mean you’re closed for a while on Thursdays. About an hour?”
Rolf Ottersen gave a wry smile. “It’s a very small shop. We don’t have many customers. Almost none until the Christmas sales, to be honest.”
“How . . . ?”
“NORAD. They support shops and our suppliers as part of the government’s trade program with Third World countries.” He coughed quietly. “The message it sends is more important than money and shortsighted gain, isn’t it?”
Harry nodded, even though he wasn’t thinking about development aid and fair trade in Africa but about the clock and driv ing time in Oslo. From the kitchen, where the twins were eating a late snack, came the sound of a radio. He hadn’t seen a TV in the house.
“Thank you. We’ll carry on.” Harry got up and went outside.
Three cars stood parked in the yard. One was Bjørn Holm’s Volvo Amazon, repainted black with a checkered rally stripe over the roof and trunk. Harry looked up at the clear, starry sky arching over the tiny farm in the forest clearing. He breathed in the air. The air of spruce and wood smoke. From the edge of the wood he heard the panting of a dog and cries of encouragement from the policeman.
To get to the barn Harry walked in the arc they had determined so as not to destroy any clues they might be able to use. Voices were emanating from the open door. He crouched down and studied the footprints in the snow in the light from the outside lamp. Then he stood up, leaned against the frame and tugged out a pack of cigarettes.
“Looks like a murder scene,” he said. “Blood, bodies and overturned furniture.”
Bjørn Holm and Magnus Skarre fell silent, turned and followed Harry’s gaze. The big open room was lit by a single bulb hanging from a cable wrapped around one of the beams. At one end of the barn there was a lathe and, behind it, a board with tools attached: hammers, saws, pliers, drills. No electric gadgets. At the other end there was a wire fence and behind it chickens perched on shelves in the wall or strutted around, stiff-legged, on the straw. In the middle of the room, on gray, untreated, bloodstained floorboards, lay three headless bodies. Harry poked a cigarette between his lips without lighting it, entered, taking care not to step in the blood, and squatted down beside the chopping block to examine the chicken heads. The beam from his flashlight focused on matte-black eyes. First he held half a white feather that looked as if it had been scorched black along the edge, then he studied the smooth severing of the chickens’ necks. The blood had coagulated and was black. He knew this was a quick process, not much more than half an hour.
“See anything interesting?” asked Bjørn Holm.
“My brain has been damaged by my profession, Holm. Right now it’s analyzing chickens’ bodies.”
Skarre laughed and painted the newspaper headlines in the air: “savage triple chicken murder. voodoo parish. harry hole assigned.”
“What I can’t see is more interesting,” Harry said.
Bjørn Holm raised an eyebrow, looked around and began to nod slowly.
Skarre looked at them skeptically. “And that is?”
“The murder weapon,” Harry said.
“A hatchet,” Holm said. “The only sensible way to kill chickens.”
Skarre sniffed. “If the woman did the killing, she must have put the hatchet back in its place. Tidy types, these farmers.”
“I agree,” Harry said, listening to the cackle of the chickens, which seemed to be coming from all sides. “That’s why it’s interesting that the chopping block is upside down and the chickens’ bodies scattered around. And the hatchet is not in its place.”
“Its place?” Skarre faced Holm and rolled his eyes.
“If you can be bothered to take a peek, Skarre,” Harry said without moving.
Skarre was still looking at Holm, who nodded toward the board behind the lathe.
“Shit,” said Skarre.
In the empty space between a hammer and a rusty saw was the outline of a small hatchet.
From outside came the sound of a dog barking and whimpering, and then the policeman’s loud shout, which was no longer encouraging. Harry rubbed his chin. “We’ve searched the whole barn, so for the moment it looks as if Sylvia Ottersen left the place while slaughtering the chickens, taking the hatchet with her. Holm, can you take the body temperatures of these chickens and estimate the time of death?”
“Yup.” “Eh?” Skarre said.
“I want to know when she ran off,” Harry said. “Did you get anything from the shoe prints outside, Holm?”
The forensic officer shook his head. “Too trampled, and I need more light. I found several of Rolf Ottersen’s boot prints. Plus a couple of others going to the barn, but none from the barn. Perhaps she was carried out of the barn?”
“Mm. Then the prints of the carrier would have been deeper. Shame no one stepped in the blood.” Harry peered at the dark walls outside the range of the bulb. From the yard they heard a dog’s pitiful whine and a policeman’s furious curses.
“Go and see what’s up, Skarre,” Harry said.
Skarre went, and Harry switched the flashlight back on and walked toward the wall. He ran his hand along the unpainted boards.
“What’s . . . ,” Holm began, but stopped when Harry’s boot hit the wall with a dull thud.
The starry sky came into view.
“A back door,” Harry said, staring at the black forest and the silhouette of spruce trees against the dome of dirty- yellow light from the town in the distance. He shone the flashlight on the snow. The beam immediately found the tracks.
“Two people,” Harry said.
“It’s the dog,” Skarre said on his return. “It won’t budge.”
“Won’t budge?” Harry lit up the trail of footprints. The snow reflected the light, but the trail vanished in the darkness beneath the trees.
“The dog handler doesn’t understand. He says the dog seems petrified.
At any rate it refuses to go into the forest.”
“Perhaps it can smell fox,” Holm said. “Lots of foxes in this forest.”
“Foxes?” Skarre snorted. “That big dog can’t be afraid of foxes.”
“Perhaps it’s never seen a fox,” Harry said. “But it knows it can smell a predator. It’s rational to be afraid of what you don’t know. The dog that isn’t won’t live long.” Harry could feel his heart begin to quicken. And he knew why. The forest. The dark. The type of terror that was not rational. The type that had to be overcome.
“This is to be treated as a crime scene until further notice,” Harry said. “Start work. I’ll check where this trail leads.”
Harry swallowed before stepping out the back door. It had been more than thirty years ago. And still his body bristled.
He had been staying at his grandparents’ house in Åndalsnes during his autumn vacation. The farm lay on a hillside with the mighty Romsdal Mountains towering above. Harry had been ten and had gone into the forest to look for the cow his grandfather was searching for. He wanted to find it before his grandfather, before anyone. So he hurried. Ran like a maniac over hills of soft blueberry bushes and funny, crooked dwarf birch trees. The paths came and went as he ran in a straight line toward the bell he thought he had heard among the trees. And there it was again, a bit farther to the right now. He jumped over a stream and ducked under a tree and his boots squelched as he ran across a marsh with a rain cloud edging toward him. He could see the veil of drizzle beneath the cloud showering the steep mountainside.
And the rain was so fine that he had not noticed the darkness descending; it slunk out of the marsh, it crept between the trees, it spilled down through the shadows of the mountainside like black paint and collected at the bottom of the valley. He looked up at a large bird circling high above, so dizzyingly high he could see the mountain behind it. And then a boot got stuck and he fell. Facedown and without anything to grab. Everything went dark, and his nose and mouth were filled with the taste of marsh, of death, decay and darkness. He could taste the darkness for the few seconds he was under. And then he came up again, and discovered that all the light had gone. Gone across the mountain towering above him in its silent, heavy majesty, whispering that he didn’t know where he was, that he hadn’t known for a long time. Unaware that he had lost a boot, he stood up and began to run. He would soon see something he recognized. But the landscape seemed bewitched; rocks had become heads of creatures growing up out of the ground, bushes were fingers that scratched at his legs and dwarf birch trees were witches bent with laughter as they pointed the way, here or there, the way home or the way to perdition, the way to his grandparents’ house or the way to the Pit. Because adults had told him about the Pit. The bottomless swamp where cattle, people and whole carts vanished, never to return.
It was almost night when Harry tottered into the kitchen and his grandmother hugged him and said that his father, grandfather and all the adults from the neighboring farm were out looking for him. Where had he been?
In the forest.
But hadn’t he heard their shouts? They had been calling Harry; she had heard them calling Harry all the time.
He didn’t remember it himself, but many times later he had been told that he had sat there trembling with cold on the wooden box in front of the stove, staring into the distance with an apathetic expression on his face, and had answered: “I didn’t think it was them calling.”
“Who did you think it was, then?”
“The others. Did you know that darkness has a taste, Grandma?”
Harry had walked barely a few yards into the forest when he was overtaken by an intense, almost unnatural silence. He shone the flashlight down on the ground in front of him because every time he pointed it into the forest, shadows ran between the trees like jittery spirits in the pitch black. Being isolated from the dark in a bubble of light didn’t give him a sense of security. Quite the opposite. The certainty that he was the most visible object moving through the forest made him feel naked, vulnerable. The branches scraped at his face, like a blind man’s fingers trying to identify a stranger.
The tracks led to a stream whose gurgling noise drowned his quickened breathing. One of the trails disappeared while the other followed the stream on lower ground.
He went on. The stream wound hither and thither, but he wasn’t concerned about losing his bearings; all he had to do was retrace his steps.
An owl, which must have been close by, hooted an admonitory to wit-to-woo. The dial on his watch glowed green and showed that he had been walking for more than fifteen minutes. Time to go back and send in the team with proper footwear, gear and a dog that was not afraid of foxes.
Harry’s heart stopped.
It had darted past his face. Soundless and so fast that he hadn’t seen anything. But the current of air had given it away. Harry heard the owl’s wings beating in the snow and the piteous squeak of a small rodent that had just become its prey.
He slowly let out the air from his lungs. Shone the flashlight over the forest ahead one last time and turned to go back. Took one step, then came to a halt. He wanted to take another, two more, to get out. But he did what he had to do. Shone the light behind him. And there it was again. A glint, a reflection of light that should not be there in the middle of the black forest. He went closer. Looked back and tried to fix the spot in his mind. It was about fifty feet from the stream. He crouched down. Just the steel stuck up, but he didn’t need to brush away the snow to see what it was. A hatchet. If there had been blood on it after the chickens were killed, it was gone now. There were no footprints around the hatchet. Harry shone the flashlight and saw a snapped twig on the snow a few yards away. Someone must have thrown the ax here with enormous strength.
At that moment Harry felt it again. The sensation he had had at the Spektrum earlier that evening. The sensation that he was being observed. Instinctively, he switched off the flashlight, and the darkness descended over him like a blanket. He held his breath and listened. Don’t, he thought. Don’t let it happen. Evil is not a thing. It cannot take possession of you. It’s the opposite; it’s a void, an absence of goodness. The only thing you can be frightened of here is yourself.
Harry switched on the flashlight and pointed it toward the clearing.
It was her. She stood erect and immobile between the trees, looking at him without blinking, with the same large, sleepy eyes as in the photograph. Harry’s first thought was that she was dressed like a bride, in white, that she was standing at the altar, here, in the middle of the forest. The light made her glitter. Harry breathed in with a shiver and grabbed his mobile phone from his jacket pocket. Bjørn Holm answered after the second ring.
“Cordon off the whole area,” Harry said. His throat felt dry, rough.
“I’m calling in the troops.”
“There’s a snowman here.”
“I didn’t catch the last part,” Holm shouted. “Poor coverage here . . . ”
“The head,” Harry repeated. “It belongs to Sylvia Ottersen.”
The other end went quiet.
Harry told Holm to follow the footprints and hung up.
Then he crouched against a tree, buttoned his coat right up and switched off the flashlight to save the battery while he waited. Thinking he had almost forgotten what it tasted like, the darkness.